Responsible Design of Drones and Drone Services - A Synthetic Report

56 Pages Posted: 9 Jan 2018

See all articles by Haomiao Du

Haomiao Du

Utrecht University; affiliation not provided to SSRN

Michiel A. Heldeweg

University of Twente

Date Written: October 2, 2017


The term “drone” is the common language of all types of aircraft without a pilot on board and their ancillary components, such as a control station, if applicable. In addition to the common term “drone”, other terms and acronyms, among others, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Unmanned Aircraft (UA), Pilotless Aircraft and Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) are also widely used in publications.

In the past 5 years, drones have demonstrated significant growth in civil market as not only a leisure product but also a tool which can provide professional services. Professional uses of drones include, among others, agricultural services, surveillance, search and rescue, monitoring and inspection, parcel delivery and picturing and filming. Compared to conducting those services above by manpower, drones provide services in higher efficiency and accuracy, decrease the cost of actions, and expand the accessibility.

The deployment of drones has impacts on individuals, the society and the environment. The potential threat to aviation safety as well as the safety of persons and properties on the ground is a central issue. In addition, given that drones are very often equipped with cameras and sensors, the potential violation to personal privacy and data protection by drone users is the major barrier that hinders the public acceptance of drone applications.

Drone operations are subject to relevant rules under civil aviation laws, because the flying of drone should comply with civil aviation laws in order to ensure aviation safety in a shared airspace with manned aircraft. Also, principles under data protection laws and personal privacy laws are also applicable to drones, as long as any type of drone operation would impact on personal and data privacy. Regulations on drones and drone operations predominantly focus on safety issues, but the implications of drones on the society and individuals are largely overlooked, albeit some general calls on the compliance with existing principles and rules contained in privacy and environmental protection regimes.

Specific regulations on the design and production of drones and on drone operations are not yet available in many countries, in particular developing countries. In addition, due to the lack of international standards on designing and operating drones or the mutual recognition of national drone regulations, even if one country had its domestic regulation on drones and drone operations, problems would still arise when a drone is designed in accordance with one country’s regulation and cannot be operated in another country because of the inconsistent regulations. The lack of specific regulations and the lack of shared standards hinder the increasing market of drone services, and very often result in a prohibition of or highly restricted drone operations.

Regarding the future regulation on drones, the major objectives of regulating unmanned aircraft are: ensuring the safety of the civil aviation and integrating unmanned aircraft into air traffic regulatory systems; protecting the right of privacy and protecting data, and enabling the development of drone technology and promoting the market of civilian use of drones.

A topic that has been widely addressed among scholars is how to deal with the dilemma between promoting technological innovation and controlling the adverse impacts arising from the deployment of a new technology on individuals as well as on the society. The challenge lies in how to make proactive and future-proof regulation which can respond to rapid technological development in a more legitimate, effective and efficient manner. The principle-based regulatory approach has the advantages of avoiding regulatory completion and can provides a greater degree of openness and flexibility, allowing for future revisions in the regulatory regimes based on new knowledge. In addition, the proactive and future-proof regulation can be achieved by decreasing the binding effect of regulation.

Diverse key players (develops, users, pilots, etc.) in the arena of drone design and services shape their behaviour by complying with current laws and regulations. Key players could meanwhile actively keep communication with regulators and legislators and inform them the problems they encounter during their compliance with current rules and regulations. Also, key players could propose their possible solutions to such problems. The interaction between regulators and key players, in particular developers and operators, should be an iterative process. Also, it is significant to facilitate and promote close collaboration and interaction between engineers and rule-makers.

The present report proposes a framework consisting of four regulatory approaches for regulators to respond to different types of threats and concerns associated with drone design and operations. The four approaches are: designed-in regulations via technical measures (or called techno-regulations), risk assessment, communication and public participation, and the precautionary approach. Techno-regulations can be widely applied to the threats that can be eliminated from the beginning. Risk assessment is an approach to evaluate risks and find risk mitigation methods, when a threat cannot be prevented from the beginning. Risk assessment covers a series of procedures to deal with complex risks. Communication and public participation are specially applied by public authorities to solve the problem of chilling effect. The precautionary approach refers to a range of regulatory measures which aim to avoid significantly or seriously adverse impact regardless of the availability of decisive evidence. The precautionary approach is applicable when scientific uncertainty is the major concern and a risk of serious or significant harm is compelling.

The present report recommends, among others, that in order to design and deploy drones in a responsible manner, ethical values should always be embedded into technological innovations. In addition, the notion of precaution should be embedded into designer and developers’ mindsets. Moreover, making decisions in a transparent and participatory environment is the key to correct misperception and towards the public’s acceptance of a new technology in the society.

Keywords: drone, drone services, responsible use

Suggested Citation

Du, Haomiao and Heldeweg, Michiel A., Responsible Design of Drones and Drone Services - A Synthetic Report (October 2, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Haomiao Du (Contact Author)

Utrecht University ( email )

Vredenburg 138
Utrecht, 3511 BG

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Michiel A. Heldeweg

University of Twente ( email )

Postbus 217

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